Learning by Questioning: Four Questions
The kiddush (blessing over the special occasion with wine or grape juice) has been recited, a second cup of wine has been poured, and the Haggadah says that it is now time for the four questions to be said. Why now? And why ask questions at all?
מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת?
What differentiates this night from all [other] nights?
The structure of the seder is described in the Mishnah (a central legal text, consisting of teachings transmitted by rabbis over hundreds of years and compiled around 200 CE). The Haggadah, the script for the seder compiled by the rabbis of the Mishnah, reflects these ideas.
מָזְגוּ לוֹ כוֹס שֵׁנִי, וְכָאן הַבֵּן שׁוֹאֵל אָבִיו
They mixed a second cup, and here the child asks his parent
Why would the child have a question at this point? What would the child ask? Perhaps they will notice that a second cup of wine was poured after kiddush. This doesn’t happen on Shabbat or other holidays. On a regular Shabbat or holiday, there is only one cup of wine. Once the second cup is poured, the child should wonder, why is this night different from all other nights?
But what if the child doesn’t notice or doesn’t ask? The Mishnah continues to say that the parent should ask for the child and provides sample questions. Why do we eat bitter herbs? Why do we recline?
So, to summarize,, we’ve learned a few things about questions.
  1. Asking questions requires us to notice what is happening around us and to see when things are different.
  2. Asking questions is the best way to learn.
  3. The parental role includes encouraging children to be inquisitive and to ask questions.
How do we raise the probability that children will spontaneously ask questions during the seder?
The Talmud tells of one rabbi, Rabba, who went to extreme lengths to elicit questions from his student, Abaye, when they were celebrating the Passover seder together.
אַבָּיֵי הֲוָה יָתֵיב קַמֵּיהּ דְּרַבָּה, חֲזָא דְּקָא מַדְלִי תַּכָּא מִקַּמֵּיהּ, אֲמַר לְהוּ: עֲדַיִין לָא קָא אָכְלִינַן, אָתוּ קָא מְעַקְּרִי תַּכָּא מִיקַּמַּן?! אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַבָּה: פְּטַרְתַּן מִלּוֹמַר ״מָה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה״.
Abaye was sitting before Rabba when he was still a child. He saw that they were removing the table from before him, and he said to those removing it: We have not yet eaten, and you are taking the table away from us? Rabba said to him: You have exempted us from reciting the questions of: Why is this night different [ma nishtana], as you have already asked what is special about the seder night.
The table was set, guests were sitting around it ready for a meal and Rabba removed the table! Of course Abaye had a question: What are you doing?? Since Rabba’s motivation was to get his student to ask a question, his work was done and no formulaic questions were necessary. For the rest of the seder, you can imagine that lots of questions were asked.
Today, the four questions have become a favorite part of the seder. Children may look forward to impressing their family with their beautiful renditions of the questions. Luckily, a seder can contain both; the traditional four questions and lots of encouragement for all participants to ask questions and discuss all aspects of the Passover story.
Family Discussion:
  • What do you think is gained by everyone asking their own questions?
  • Freedom is a major theme of the seder. How might asking questions symbolize freedom?
  • What questions do you have about the seder, or about Passover? What questions do you want to ask the people celebrating the seder with you?